WiSTEM Blog Series

Messages I Took from March: Women’s History Month with Women in STEM

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Author: Kaci Martin, Molecular Genetics and Genomics (MGG) PhD student

There were wonderful events that I was able to attend during Women’s History Month. Each had an impact on my perspective of being a woman and navigating academia as a woman. Thank you to WiSTEM and the Academic Women’s Network (AWN) for hosting the Symposium on Gender Equity on International Women’s Day. Here is how it went and notes I took away from it.

            Dr. Gwen Randolph, president of AWN, opened with some remarks on the event with excitement as she looked over the crowd of women and men. There were graduate students (like myself), doctors, professors, residents, and more. It was a unique event where the academic side of WashU intermingled with the medicine side of WashU. I watched as my peer, Mandy Chan, who is the current president of WiSTEM, took the podium. I saw her highlight some of the struggles she has faced from being looked down upon as a woman pursuing science. It was inspiring to see another graduate student speak up, unwavering, to an audience about a vulnerable issue. The former AWN president, Lynn Cornelius, spoke of the history of AWN and where the future lies for the organization. She spoke of connecting WashU faculty with BJC staff and bridging this disconnect some may feel between the two parts of WashU. At the end of the day, all are women in STEM facing similar problems and can be stronger facing them together. Women can be a task force on climate and culture.

            The Lecture at the event was led by Dr. Sandra Masur from Mount Sinai. She opened with remarks on a journey in STEM. It is important for a woman to identify how she got to where she is. Perhaps brains and passion. Who might her role models be? Who is in her community? These questions identify her village. This village is crucial in providing support during hard times and coming together to solve problems. In 1993 MIT female faculty came together to bring up the issue that women were not being promoted like their fellow male colleagues and were occupying significantly less lab area – scientifically proven, by one of the faculty Dr. Nancy Hopkins, tape measuring lab space in the night. There has been tremendous growth in equality for women, which we can thank for brave women who have brought difficult conversations up. Dr. Masur described that people tend to try to overcome stereotypes when they are aware of their stereotypes, so it is useful to bring up these stereotypes of women.  Today, we can look around us and see even gender distribution at the trainee level, but we still see fewer women in associate professor and full professor roles. What could be happening here?

            During the panel discussion of the Symposium on Gender Equity, many topics were brought up that might explain why women aren’t seen in these later career stages. WashU and other universities are still not completely transparent with pay in departments. Even when it comes to promotions, it is unclear why universities do not reward volunteer work that benefits the whole community. Many women and minorities willingly donate their time and efforts to work that appears underappreciated when it comes to pay and promotions. During a separate Title IX lecture, I came across another topic that was mentioned at this symposium. Title IX provides resources for victims of sexual harassment; however, Title IX and many regulations focus primarily on the victim, but provide little to no consequences for the accused. I think many may remember the recent event at WashU that provides great clarity on this subject. Accused subjects may receive no penalties, while survivors have to make difficult decisions to mediate the situation, such as dropping out of PhD training. What can we do today to alleviate pressures on women and place responsibilities on higher officials?

Family and a woman’s role in building a family is a major hurdle in pursuing STEM careers. During the WiSTEM event Growing Up in Science, I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Sharon Cresci about her experience with family in medicine and research. Dr. Cresci was a medical doctor hoping to start her research career. She took a break from her career to be a mother to her four children before returning full-time to medicine and performing research. She felt that being a mother was something she could not miss out on. She felt so strongly about this, that she requested to be part-time while raising her family, even though she knew that no one in her division worked part time and even though she had serious concerns about how this would affect her career. Her words mirrored those of women at the symposium, “sometimes, you just have to ask for it. You would be surprised.”

Many women feel pressured by this dichotomy. Should a woman prioritize family, or should she prioritize her career? Can she juggle both? Dr. Masur mentioned in her Lecture that women have many balls to juggle – personal life conflicts, grants, patients, partner, children, and more. Sometimes one part of life is a glass ball that cannot be dropped, while other parts may be a rubber ball, and can handle a fall if needed. I see many women in my academic life with children and without. I also see women going through IVF to try to have a child later in life, not that they wanted kids later, but because they felt that their career needed it. I see women struggling to find daycare for their children as they are bombarded in the hospital, especially through and after COVID. I see women looking to adopt because their reproductive clock has run up. I see all these women looking at institutions asking, “why won’t you help us?” Women have done a lot of work to equalize the playing field in STEM, but STEM is still not built for a woman building a family and her career. I hope, in the near future, academia and medicine will take serious strides to help women achieve all their goals. After all, women’s rights affect everyone. They affect the partners of women who are in STEM.I had heard so many times growing up how hard and how giving it was to be with someone going to medical or graduate school. These relationships can feel the extra strain when building a family. I hear it from my colleagues and my mentors. They worry if they can be a good parent and partner. They worry if children will interfere with their growth in their career. They worry if they are selfish for pursuing their career or waiting to have children. STEM requires incredible amounts of drive, passion, time, and patience. Parenting does too. What can we ask for today to make tomorrow better for women in STEM, for families of those in STEM?

One woman during the Symposium on Gender Equity stated, “My daughter asked me if she should be a scientist or a mommy when she grows up. I looked at her and said ‘baby, you can be both.’”

Additional resources/reading materials:

  1. Reflections from Five Research Pioneers, 2018, Scientific American: https://www.scientificamerican.com/custom-media/mount-sinai/mount-sinai-reflections-from-five-research-pioneers/
  2. Resources for leadership Development for Women in Academic Biomedicine as mentioned by Dr. Masur during the symposium: https://sites.wustl.edu/womeninstem/resources-for-leadership-development-for-women-in-academic-biomedicine/
  3. The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the Fight for Women in Science, by Kate Zernike. Can be found at Becker Library Women in STEM library. 
  4. Ask For It: How Women Can Use the Power of Negotiation to Get What They Really Want, by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever. Can be found at Becker Library Women in STEM Library.

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